Wakanda and the Black Imagination

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Alex Ross

It’s obviously not the case, but T’Challa—the Black Panther and mythical ruler of Wakanda—has always struck as the product of the black nationalist dream, a walking revocation of white supremacist myth. T’Challa isn’t just a superhero in the physical sense, he is one of the smartest people in the world, ruling the most advanced civilization on the planet. Wakanda’s status as ever-independent seems to eerily parallel Ethiopia’s history as well as its place in the broader black imagination. Maybe it’s only me, but I can’t read Jason Aaron’s superb “See Wakanda And Die” and not think of Adowa.

Comic book creators, like all story-tellers, get great mileage out of myth and history. But given the society we live in, some people’s myths are privileged over others. Some of that is changing, no doubt. In the more recent incarnations of T’Challa you can see Christopher Priest invoking the language of the Hausa or Reginald Hudlin employing the legacy of colonialism. These were shrewd artistic decisions, rooted in the fact that anyone writing Black Panther enjoys an immediate, if paradoxical, advantage: the black diaspora is terra incognita for much of the world. What does the broader world really know of Adowa? Of Nanny and Cudjoe? Of the Maji-Maji rebellion? Of Legba and Oshun?  Of Shine? Of High John The Conqueror? T’Challa’s writers have always enjoyed access to a rich and under-utilized pool of allusion and invocation.

I would not have always considered this an advantage. When I first started writing, I was anxious that I would be pigeon-holed into the “race-beat.” Eventually I realized that the “race beat” was actually the “humanity beat,” and that questions about “racism” are really questions about the exercise of power. Perhaps more importantly I realized that “race” was an essential thread of American society, and questions about race were questions about the very nature of the Western world. I wasn’t pigeon-holed, I’d fallen into a gold-mine. America is the most powerful country in the world. You simply can’t understand how it got that way without understanding “race.”

And beneath that political conversation about “race,” swirling around it, sometimes directly related, and sometimes tangentially related, are the incredible myths and world-views of black people and the black diaspora at large.To the extent that this society has not been able to engage with those myths, with that world-view, it has not only lied to itself, but it has also robbed itself of some beautiful art. Racism isn’t just morally wrong, it makes for poor story-telling.

Incidentally, so does didacticism. T’Challa won’t be yelling, “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” There will be no policy papers on the slave trade, nor any overly-earnest, sepia-tinged “Black History Month” style of story-telling.  The culture and politics can’t be on top; they have to baked in. So yeah, you might see some Walter Rodney in the royal library, or a sample from Robert Hayden. Or you might get a variant cover that pulls from our present moment. But there’s no need to over do it. The facts are in: T’Challa is black. This is not a declaration. It’s an opportunity.